Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Building (Another) Mountain Bike...and Messing Something Up

If you do build your own mountain bike on a $97 starter hardtail frame (as I did) you may want to eventually upgrade to a full suspension bike. Lucky for me, my cousin sold me a good Specialized frame that already had a excellent shock mounted within, so the rest of the project was mostly about moving parts from one bike to the other. This project is one of the great things about having two Park Tool PCS-12 workstands mounted side by side on the same workbench.

It took me less than one episode of Top Gear (the original, BBC version, of course) to move 90% of the parts over. Fresh off the crank upgrade I gave the Bike Friday, I did the drivetrain first and just worked my way up. I did need to use some new tools this time around: for instance, to remove a headset from one bike and keep it usable, a headset removal tool is really the only option.

Also, I didn't have a headset press (or, more importantly, a croquet mallet) to put the headset on the new frame, so I broke out a rubber mallet and pounded it in as gently and firmly as possible.

By the time the 'Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car' segment had ended, I nearly had a normal-looking mountain bike and I was pretty excited about it. Not only did it look good, but I was convinced it would be the most comfortable mountain bike ever thanks to the Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost. I know you don't normally see suspension seatposts on full suspension bikes, but I thought it was time to redefine what full suspension meant.

However, as soon as I put the handlebars on, things went awry.

The cables went on easily enough after I cut the pieces of housing to the appropriate lengths. But for whatever reason, the cable on the front derailleur was too short. No problem, I thought. I had plenty of other shifter cables. So I took a wrench and properly unscrewed the shifter screwed myself out of a functioning shifter. What the picture below shows? Never do that.

There are times when lessons are learned the hard way. This was one of those times. I unscrewed the largest and most obvious-looking bolt on the shifter and instead of being able to remove the housing, a tiny metal spring leapt from the handlebars and scampered across the shop floor.

And I couldn't put it back in. 90% of the bike was built, but I spent the same amount of time on the 90% trying to fix the mistake I made with the 1%. Getting the spring back in was like the last three seconds of every losing Tetris game I ever played.

So it was game over for what was once a functioning shifter. I removed it the rest of the way and soon discovered that even if I hadn't broken it, it wouldn't be able to connect to the derailleur that was off Mountain Bike 1.0 anyway: the downtube was thicker and the design had the cable coming in from the bottom rather than the top. So I attached everything else from 1.0 (save for the brakes; after the poor showing at the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont last fall I upgraded to a new set of Avid ones).

Eventually, I realized that I needed to do something I probably should do a lot more often: visit a bike shop to get the expertise and the parts I needed. Although all the systems on the new bike were not yet operational, I decided to take it straight to the Stamford train station to head to Greenwich.

On the way to the station – and later on the ride up to Greenwich Bicycles - I was impressed with the suspension and may have looked disturbed or comical as I made an effort to hop every curb and hit every pothole and run over every obstruction just so I could revel in the comfort of the ride. This would be a great bike, I thought.

At Greenwich Bicycles, I wheeled my new ride right into the shop to get the expertise to get me rolling again. Thankfully, the reactions I got from the owner, Rob, as well as his employees who saw the bike didn't recoil in horror or make any I-hope-you-didn't-pay-too-much-for-this-on-eBay comments: they found me a derailleur that brought up the cable from the bottom bracket and a new shifter...that doesn't match the old one but works great anyway. The value of the expertise and great service was built into the cost of the products I bought, and I left with a valuable lesson: when you're building or taking apart a bike, know when you are out of your depth.

I returned home and, once I had the shifter and derailleur installed and adjusted properly, took the bike for a short and slow ride...across the breakwater at West Beach with the big, pointy rocks. I admit it was a little bumpy, but it crawled across easily. If it had a holster for a chainsaw and another for a shotgun, it would be the perfect bike for a zombie apocalypse.

That left me with just one last thing to do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bike to Work Week 2012: Practical Knowledge for the Reluctant Commuter (Vol. 2)

Once again, we have arrived at another Bike to Work Week. And once again, we are presented with little practical information for the reluctant bicycle commuter. It's unfortunate because this holiday (well, not a holiday...there's no Bike to Work Week greeting card section in Hallmark, is there?) shouldn't just exist for cyclists who already bike to work regularly. It should provide encouragement for those who never, not in a million years, thought about biking to work and are just completely unable to fathom the loss of all the little things that come with driving a car to to work. 

That's our target audience.

Now as many of you probably remember, I did a post last year about the link between coffee and driving. In a car, you can put a cup of coffee from a local establishment in your cup holder in your car. Of course, there are cup holders available for bikes, but DIYBIKING.COM took it a step further by testing several different cup lids to see which would spill the least amount of coffee on your bike or on your person. The surprise winner last year was McDonalds.

However, since then I have made an extraordinary discovery in the world of disposable coffee lids, or as the Solo Cup Company calls, 'premium hot beverage solutions.' It's called the...just wait a moment: the Solo Hot Cup Traveler Plus, which is available at select coffee houses as well as in lots of 500 for $57.87 on

This lid - which can't be photographed because it is so beautiful - features a little tab in the back of you can slide to one side, which in turn opens a little slot from which you may sip your coffee. When you are done with your sip and the traffic light is about to turn green, you can close the little slot and set the cup confidently in your cupholder.

Now, the question becomes: exactly where can this cup be found? You can call ahead to your favorite local coffee shops and ask if their to-go cups have the Solo Hot Cup Traveler Plus lids, but because you're an active DIYBIKING.COM reader, you can save your cell phone minutes: this morning I called a place in Stamford that I suspected to be a carrier of the lid. While the woman on the other end of the phone sounded a bit bewildered that I was asking for the Solo Hot Cup Traveler Plus lid by name, I can confirm that the great Cafe Oo La La in Ridgeway Plaza in Stamford carries the lid.

Whether you are a reluctant bike commuter or not, Cafe Oo La La, on 2325 Summer Street in Stamford wants you to get to where you are going with you coffee in your cup and not on your trousers, so if you ride anywhere near them, that's the place to go to get coffee.

Now, I acknowledge that carrying coffee neatly while cycling may not be enough to convince your car loving friends to give biking to work a try. There are other things associated with driving to work they may be reluctant to let go of. Such as....outside mirrors. We look ahead, we move forward, but we want to see what's behind us – both in a car and on a bike. To the latter end, guide the reluctant cyclist to a helmet mounted rearview mirror.

It's not the best picture, I admit, but you can see it there; mounted a few inches above and beyond the left eye. It's no substitute for a quick glance over the shoulder, but one can easily understand what is coming and how fast it is moving just by flicking the eye up and to the left. That and a helmet should help ease the concerns of a reluctant commuter when it comes to safety.

Now, carrying coffee neatly and seeing what's coming behind them may not be enough. They may want additional safety measures such as....a bell.

Some bike shops carry more than just the Incredibell (which is on a couple of my bikes), so when you take your Reluctant Commuter to the shop, work with them to find the bell that they'll like to put on their bike and enjoy ringing.

There may be what is known as a 'Class 5 Reluctant Commuter' who isn't interested in using a little bell to let their presence be known to the drivers and cyclists around them. So, if you are dealing with a Class 5 and you have the parts, the know-how and a disregard to passers-by, there's this:

Let me just follow up by saying that just because I know how to install a car horn on a bicycle doesn't mean that I have done it or deployed it (the ICBM's are operational, but the launch codes are safe with me if you know what I mean). It also doesn't mean I believe in using it at all: commuters, regardless of transport, should get to where they are going without anger and there are some irritating things about cars that just shouldn't be brought into the cycling world (although I will concede it's tempting to use this horn on a bike when faced with a white earphones-wearing rollerblader taking up too much space on the West Side Greenway. So instead of a polite 'on your left!' which they can't hear anyway, a BLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAWWWWWWW!!!!! on the '78 Oldsmobile horn may encourage them not to keep the volume turned all the way to 11).

Speaking of irritating things about cars that shouldn't be brought over to the cycling world, we should take a moment to realize that yes: bikes, unless they haven't had much drivetrain maintenance, are in fact very quiet when they are in motion. However, there are non-bell, non car horn ways to deal with this as well – and a way to tap into some of what made cycling fun in the first place.

If baseball cards and clothespins are hard to come by, the right toy store and about $25 will allow the reluctant bike commuter to attach a Turbospoke exhuast system to their bike that will, in the words of the box copy, make it 'roar.'

I haven't tried this yet, but I have little reason to believe that the product doesn't work as advertised. So imagine if the sound of scores of cars moving around your local downtown was replaced by the roar of scores of bicycles. It's noise pollution, yes, but it isn't actual pollution, which is part of why Bike to Work Week needs to be promoted anyway.

Speaking of noise pollution: the Reluctant Commuter may have something called a car alarm installed on their motor vehicle. We all know that when we hear a car alarm going off, we immediate run, run, run to the source of the noise to frighten any would-be car theives away. There are unconfirmed reports of car alarms going off because a person commits the unpardonable sin of standing too close to a 1997 Porsche Boxter or the alarmed cars are parked too close to a place where fireworks are being set off.

I do not have the sophistication to bring the same security miracle to bikes, but I can offer this:

I can't remember where I bought this (nor do I recall why) but this is something called a Luggage Locator, which comes with a small transmitter and a slightly larger receiver. Here's how it works: you switch the receiver on and attach it to your Samsonite suitcase and keep the transmitter with you, so if you are trying to find your bag in a bus terminal or the like you can switch on the transmitter and press the button in the middle. If you're within maybe fifty or sixty feet of the receiver, it will give you some audible beeps.

So, if you are dealing with a reluctant bike commuter and they have a level of comfort with their cars and a paranoid devotion to their car alarms, you can give them this. Tell them they still have to use an ordinary bike lock when they lock their bike up, but they can hide the Luggage Locator receiver on the bike, and, as they are walking away, they can point the transmitter at the bike and push the button. Any would-be thief watching or within earshot will likely believe that the reluctant bike commuter isn't a reluctant bike commuter at all, but rather a menacing, with-it individual who obviously invested in a very sophisticated security system for their Townie.

And, with that, I urge you all to reach out to the reluctant commuters in your life (by forwarding this important message their way) and provide support and encouragement to everyone who thinks our jerseys are ugly and our shoes are too expensive. Have a great Bike to Work Week and please ride responsibly: don't text and/or eat corn-on-the-cob while pedaling.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bike Expo New York and The Five Boro Bike Tour 2012

It's here. The event that, eight years ago, put a super adhesive seal between myself and the activity of cycling. The TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour starts tomorrow, so it's time to visit DIYBIKING.COM archeives and look up the Five Things I Can't Live Without on the Five Boro Bike Tour list as well as my experience riding last year.

This year, as my fellow veteran Five Boro Bike Tour riders know, is a little different. Now some of those differences have obvious potential benefits (i.e., staggered start times to prevent bottlenecks) but Bike New York has also made a lot of other changes to this great event – some of which I would have approached just a little bit differently.

For instance, this year, Bike New York started a lottery system for tour entry, so instead of a first-come-first-serve method, I had to pay a nonrefundable fee of a few dollars for my lottery ticket – just like tens of thousands of others. I assume this was done to subtly make a bit more on the transaction but more importantly to make it easier for people who have never done the tour before to be able to do it. Another way this could have been done is to provide a registration date for newcomers separate and earlier from that of the start date for veterans – and the veterans, who are presuably kept track of via addresses, credit cards and e-mail addresses in Bike New York's computers – when they pre-registered, they are automatically enrolled (whether they make it in the tour or not) for a really cool prize drawing, which would give them an incentive not to pretend to be newbies.

I can also guess why they didn't mail out the packets this year (with vests, the little magazine, and rider numbers). They wanted to save money on postage, but in the survey they did last year, they also probably learned the folks weren't spending a whole lot of time at the Festival at Fort Wadsworth. Personally, I felt that problem had to do with logistics: at the festival, there's a road between the scattered exhibitor booths and the food. If they put several small free food and drink stations among the booths (climbing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island can make one fantasize about such things) they probably would have the proper traffic for the exhibitors.

But by making someone go to Manhattan up to three days before the tour to visit Bike Expo New York does give valuable traffic to Bike Expo New York. The thing that niggles me is that I worry that doing this may reduce the diversity of the tour. When I ride the recumbent down to the start line, I often see cars parked here and there with bikes being pulled off of Thule racks – cars obviously driven from far away on the morning of the tour. Because I live in Stamford, which is practically the sixth borough, I can get in and out of Manhattan in the days before the tour relatively easily. If someone is coming from many states away (or even different countries) and has limited time to spare, they may not be able to do the tour at all. I know they can use proxies to pick up their packet, but still.

Also – and here I'm scraping the bottom of the well of complaints – is the way Bike New York did the packet pickup itself. I got an email from them (as I know many of you readers did) that read in the subject line: “TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour Proceedures at Bike Expo New York” I know they spelled the word 'procedures' wrong in the email - and that's not what I'm complaining about. They spell it right on the web site and I have speling and grammatical errors in this blog awl the time. It's the use of the word. Getting your gall bladder removed. Having your stomach stapled. Colonoscopies. Those are procedures. The subject line could have been a bit cheerier with: “Countdown to the Five Boro: How to pick up your tour packet at Bike Expo New York!” or something like that - not a complaint; more like a pet peeve.

Finally, you have to bring a copy of the rider number email they sent you (and a photo ID) when you pick up your packet. I haven't had my computer hooked to a printer since George W. Bush was in office – not that those two things are connected – but they should have either allowed people just to bring a scrap of paper with their rider number on it or a cell phone screen shot of the email to show to the packet pickup people. And – now digging into the earth's crust underneath the otherwise shallow well of complaints – is they need to follow the example of banks, Marshall's department store and homeland security checkpoints: one line, many registers. When I arrived yesterday afternoon, I was put into a line that was, according to one volunteer, a little shorter than the others. But I felt like I was waiting longer than I was.

So those are the negatives I've found. Here are the positives: after you pass through the first set of lines, the system makes sense because you're instructed to enter a line that corresponds with your rider number, so yesterday afternoon I picked up my packet quickly, easily and in an exchange of smiles with a great volunteer at Bike New York.

Also, if you're within half a day's drive to Manhattan (whether you're trying to pick up your packet for the Five Boro Bike Tour or not) Bike Expo New York is actually quite cool. Don't let the unassuming hall at Basketball City fool you: inside it is a cyclist's Nerdstock.

I got there by riding my Dahon Matrix (which doesn't get to ride in the tour but is still the best bike I have for short-range city travel) to the corner of South Street and Montgomery street by heading from Grand Central terminal to the East Side Greenway, which runs near FDR drive. It was a short and pleasant ride that took me right to the bike valet parking provided by Transportation Alternatives.

Then, inside Bike Expo New York, you can make a beeline to the packet pickup area by walking to your immediate right and following the easy to read signs hanging overhead. Once done, you get to mingle with some nice people and great exhibitors including Rolling Orange Bikes, World Bicycle Relief, Worksman Cycles (why they don't have one of their excellent ice cream cart bikes or quad cargo bikes at their booth is a mystery to me), Metro Bicycle Stores, Momentum magazine, Zigo and their cool baby carrying tricycle, Montecci, Bike Friday (I told them both about Folding Bike Week) and others. Vaya Bags, which makes panniers, messenger bags and other nice products with recycled sailcloth and old bike tubes, also has a booth with some of their products for sale. So if you don't bring a bag with you to put your Bike Expo loot in, you can buy one there.

So, I know that a lot of people may be grumbling at the changes to this years' Five Boro Bike Tour, but if you can get to the Bike Expo New York or knows somebody who can, make sure you head to Manhattan today to check it out. I will be spending today caring and feeding the museum piece I'll be riding at the tour on Sunday, so I will see you then.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Biking Nations: Biking in Britain, Part II

Recently I had to go to London on business. It sounds so grown-up, doesn't it?

Prior to this part of my U.K. trip, I had already taken a memorable 37 mile ride through the English Countryside. Now I was in London, and I began the business trip phase the way most others do: by ironing my suits in a hotel room while watching BBC One...or possibly Two. Then I had to figure out how to get to my destination, how to meet the people I was supposed to meet and eat the things I was supposed to eat (i.e., fish and chips) while doing all kinds of Productive Grown-Up Things for three days. In London, when you're far from your own bikes and are coping with a five hour time difference, it can be an exhausting time.


London, just like the great cities of Paris, Boston and Washington D.C. and a few others I haven't visited, has a bike share. This one is sponsored by Barclays. I'm normally irritated at financial institutions that overpay its executives, but if they financially support a good a bike share, I'll often let it go.

Now you might assume that a cycle share might only be used by Londoners who can't afford Bromptons, but you'd be wrong. I've been in London a few times since the bike share there began, and I can see the bikes being used by absolutely everyone – from people in suits to people in shorts. If people are cycling in groups of two or more, I often hear languages that aren't commonly taught in U.S. public schools. I also pick up American accents here and there, which is a giveaway that people can in fact visit London and use the Barclays bike share.

If you're in London on business, you might think to yourself that you don't have the time to take a liesurely ride in your travels and your hotel and your Productive Grown-Up Things are too far away from each other (or too far from a docking station) to use the bikes at all. That's what I thought too, but I spent the five pounds for seven days of access, and the knowledge that I could use the bikes brought tremendous pyschological value. No matter how bad my feet hurt at the end of each day or how annoyed I was at the work I had to do, simply walking by a docking station would make me break into a smile.

In addition to the access charge, there is a charge for rides longer than 30 minutes in length, and even that is low: up to an hour is only one pound. If you choose to not return the bike at all and bring it back to the states as a souvineer, the non-return charge is 300 pounds. Not that I'm suggesting anything.

So if you have a trip to London coming up, immediately log onto the Barclays Cycle Hire site. If you're in town for a week or less, the seven-day plan is the one for you. You can buy it before the trip and the seven-day period doesn't start until the first time you undock a bike.

The site also encourages you to read through the rules of cycling when using the Barclays bikes. The rules include: Cardio, Check the back seat, Don't be a hero, and Beware of bathrooms.

Wait – those are the rules from the 2009 hit film Zombieland.

The rules of the Barclays cycle scheme (which they call 'codes of conduct') are on their site and helpfully printed on each docking station. My favorite: don't ride with animals/bulky items in the basket.

When you have a break in your Grown-Up Things schedule (I had two!) you can head to any station and start with the touch screen. I brought the same credit card I used when I registered for the scheme and was easily able to get the machines to print out an essential piece of paper that bore the six digit code that you must type into the three digit keypad next to a bike to release it. It goes without saying, but make sure there is a bike in the docking station before you begin.

As it says on the slip, the code only works for 10 minutes, so any DIYBIKING.COM visitors who go to London and try typing in the code above will not be rewarded with a bicycle.

My first use of the scheme was so brief it isn't worth mentioning here (I was wearing a suit and, as it does so rarely in London, began to rain heavily minutes after I started using a bike). The second time I was on my last day in the U.K. and found myself near Kensington Gardens. I had less than an hour before I had to go meet my wife but thought a little ride would be good for me. Thankfully, cycle hire docking stations have maps showing you the likely time demands of walking versus cycling.

I studied the map of the docking station I was using, and, after careful consideration, chose Bike # 21406 for my ride.

21406, like the others, isn't a high performance machine, but it is thoughtfully designed. You can step through the frame so it's easy to get on. The seat is surprisingly comfortable and has the familiar quick release to adjust the height. The chain is also hidden so you don't mess up your trousers (it's the U.K. so you can use the word 'trousers' instead of 'pants.')

It also, of course, has a basket for your briefcase or pocketbook and a big bungee to hold it all in place. The three speed shifter on 21406 was also smooth operating as I headed through Kensington Gardens.

I rode politely (I still used the bell from time to time) and mindful that I wasn't wearing a helmet like so many others, I rode slowly. It was just nice to be on a ride – and to always be close to places that had maps.

Once again – and this is so incredibly rare for London – it began to rain not long after this photo was taken. But I needed to wrap up my ride anyway and easily redocked the bike at a station before heading back to the tube station to meet up with my wife.

The way I figured it, I spent about $8 in U.S. currency and ended up riding for less than a half hour. But again, it wasn't about the distance traveled, but rather the ability to do what so many others don't: taking a ride in a great and unfamiliar city...and tiring myself out before an overnight flight.